The Dark Underbelly of Land Struggles: Women at the Front of Protests

In 2016/17, during the course of my research in Cambodia, I explored micro-politics of contestation and the role of former Khmer Rouge in contesting land grabbing. Analyzing the repercussions on conflict transformation, I also paid special attention to gender dynamics at play. From the very beginning, I was intrigued by the bipolar but comparatively minor role women play in contentious politics in Cambodia. Talking to numerous communities affected by land conflicts, as well as NGOs and pagodas supporting these communities, I was confronted countless times with the argument “we put women at the front of protests, because they don’t use violence” - resting on the prevalent believe that non-violent strategies are best. Certainly, the role and commitment of women in protests varies from cause to cause, province to province and even community to community. But it soon became clear that the idea of women-led protest is widely acknowledged - be it in indigenous groups, communities of former Khmer Rouge soldiers, or among urban activists. In the following, I dismantle the myth of the argument that women are less likely to use violence and/or experience violence in the context of contestation and discuss if it can help to empower women and promote female leadership in Cambodia. This being said, the discussion will also center around questions of responsibility and respective repercussions on gender dynamics within the communities.

But to start with we should have a look at what motivates or encourages Cambodian women to participate in contentious politics. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the active engagement of women depends very much on the nature of the struggle. Despite the majority of garment workers being women we see only few female union leaders, for example. On the one hand, the threefold workload – factory work plus taking care of the household and the family – naturally limits the time female factory workers can contribute to the struggle. However, men do not only have more freedom (of time) but also actively discourage women, whom they often perceive as inferior and uneducated, from taking over leading positions in unions.

Although women, according to Cambodian customs, are supposed to be modest and hence, rarely speak up in public, a different picture unfolds in the context of land conflicts. Here, both men and women actively claim their rights albeit most community representatives are still men. Nonetheless, it appears women are increasingly active in many communities. A good argument can be made that women bear the brunt of land grabs. According to traditional gender roles, it is their responsibility to provide food and shelter for the family. In this vein, my interlocutors kept emphasizing the motherly instincts of women. Consequently, being “more” affected by evictions and land loss it seems an almost natural choice for women to stand up to ensure a future for their children. 

While this may prove true in some cases, there are other motivations and drivers at play, too. Sometimes, it is simply a question of courage. I noticed especially older ladies tend to be tough. Either they used to be Khmer Rouge cadres before or they became resilient through surviving the dark years of the Khmer Rouge era. Either way, they are confident and know their strengths. More than once I heard “I’m old already and I’m not afraid to die!” or “I’m passionate and want to work for the nation, for the people!” Besides these strong individuals, I found most women were encouraged by various NGOs to speak up and particularly to stay at the front of demonstrations. In so doing, women shall have a calming effect on the disputes, prevent outbursts of violence (both from security personnel and protesting villagers), and promote advocacy to find a solution. This approach stands in stark contrast to the government’s major concern that NGOs would not empower the people, but encourage them to incite unrest.

Based on the assumption that men are more prone to violence (and vice versa that women would only use nonviolent advocacy), it turned out to be a well-recognized strategy to let women approach or negotiate gently with local authorities and companies. At the same time, it is assumed that security forces including the military or the police would use less violence if women are at the front.  As a villager put it once:  “Women are important, when it comes to direct confrontation. Only men work in the authorities. Men easily explode, women won’t get hit. Sometimes women also go when their husbands are busy in the field”. On the contrary, for all social norms and expectations some of my female interlocutors revealed their anger and frustration about their land being taken. Disproving the nonviolence-women-assumption, many of them cursed the company and authorities or used other means perceived as violent.

During the course of my research, I tried to get to the bottom of these contradictions. Apparently, the women-at-the-front-strategy can be traced back to lessons learned from the Boeung Kak struggle. As the protests fueled by security forces turned more and more violent the communities in Phnom Penh started to send their women instead. Indeed, this led to a decline of police violence at first. But the initial advantage – based on cultural norms and customs that imply to not harm women (in public) - soon faded and security personal beat up female and male protesters, alike. Notwithstanding, all NGOs I spoke to, with only few exceptions, have adopted this strategy and train communities, accordingly. I also found that they particularly aim at empowering indigenous women, although indigenous people only represent a small share of the Cambodian population. However, they are disproportionally affected by land concessions and respective conflicts and it is probably easier to attract funding, to name but a few reasons. Having said that, I do not blame NGOs to putting women at risk consciously. But the question of responsibility remains.

Despite all efforts and good intentions to promote emancipation, putting women at the front goes along with two major shortcomings. First, it poses a physical security threat to women and second, challenges existing community structures – to the disadvantage of Cambodian women and more often than not at the cost of their mental well-being. Many female activists and NGO staff are concerned about their safety. Evidence suggest that 95 percent of Cambodian women actively engaged in land struggles had received threats from the authorities and a third even experienced physical violence (see CCHR 2016 report “Cambodia’s Women in Land Conflict”). Over time, female activists have thus developed a range of safety measures, i.e. sharing their whereabouts via social media or male “guards” accompanying them. Yet, female activists and women joining demonstrations are beaten, harassed and jailed, while families struggle to survive with their mothers, wives, or daughters in prison.

More important, physical harm in combination with constant pressure from the authorities and families leads to increasing mental stress and depression among female activists. That said, joining the struggle means women cannot sufficiently contribute to the family income anymore or lack time to volunteer in malaria clinics, to name but a few social challenges. In this regard, certainly the question arises why many women take part in unpaid social work, whereas men are less or not encouraged to do so at all. This binary measure is not unique to the Cambodian context, of course, but indicates the still highly gendered nature of tasks and responsibilities in its society. It also makes social implications of female engagement in contestation visible and the responsibilities they shoulder. I remember a female activist using the metaphor of women having 100 hands, because of the wide range of their responsibilities. She was obviously concerned about the sacrifices her fellows make: “Some women are very strong when they join, but after a while they become skinny and weak, many become depressed.” Unsurprisingly, many women suffer from impoverishment and domestic violence which often results in divorce. About 23 percent of the respondents of CCHR’s survey said they had experienced domestic abuse – half of them did not until the land conflict started. The reasons are manifold. Mostly, it is a combination of frustration, hopelessness, alcoholism, coupled with increasing socio-economic and emotional pressure, and the inability of their husbands to accept the new role of (their) women.

Men, elders, and even women struggle to accept their new role and to appreciate female leadership. Even strong female activists think they have limited knowledge and skills and are of less value than their male counterparts. Yet, we should keep in mind that it was mostly women who survived the Khmer Rouge era and it was them who rebuilt communities in a post-war climate of mistrust and despair. In contemporary Cambodia, the legacy of women traditionally not “being vocal” is still strong though women increasingly speak up or get engaged in village politics to solve land conflicts.

Certainly, NGOs (and donors alike) can contribute to this process by giving advice and support. It is a sound idea to empower women and give them a voice. However, pushing women to the front of demonstrations has various, partly invisible counter-productive effects and is irresponsible. A fundamental re-thinking is needed to prevent women from being utilized as “human shields”. A critical self-reflection of the mostly male-dominated NGO scene could offer a starting point. The few female NGO staff I spoke to - especially in the provinces - understand the struggle and challenges of female representatives and activists very well. Most of them share the experience of male discouragement and not being treated equally by authorities or companies. Filling the institutional void, women networks are emerging step by step, though it is still a long way to go in terms of rural-urban linkages. Those networks provide companionship and offer a safe space to share problems and lessons learned. Some of these networks also came up with small saving accounts to jointly shoulder financial burdens and avert individual risks.

I want to stress that it is important to facilitate the process of emancipation that will not stop once the land conflicts are solved. After all, many of these women who have suffered mentally and physically will want to participate in future decision-making processes. Moreover, a new “activist-generation” may grow up, tagged along by their mothers to meetings, sit-ins, or demonstrations due to limited child care opportunities and resources. If not their mothers, these children may successfully strive against the stream and fight existing injustices one day.

Anne Hennings is a visiting researcher at the Heinrich Boell Foundation Cambodia at the moment and a research fellow at the University of Muenster. Her PhD-research explores micro-politics of contentious politics in post-war societies with special emphasis on land conflicts. Based on extensive ethnographic fieldwork in Cambodia and Sierra Leone, Anne researches respective repercussions on conflict transformation and the risk of (anew) insurgencies. She studied at the University of Marburg (M.A. Peace and Conflict Studies) and Political Science, Sociology, Economics and Demography at the University of Rostock. Anne is co-founder and speaker of the working group “Nature, Resources and Conflict” as well as co-editor of the Resource and Conflict blog